Week 2: Scene Summaries

Week 2 is about the time we should start thinking about scenes. We’ve spent a week or so making notes about our protagonist and our antagonist. We now know (or think we know) what each wants and what each fears the most. We also have more than inkling of where and when the story is going to occur. Now that the background is in place, this is a good time to start thinking of what is going to happen.

First, some mathematics: since you’re writing a novel of size 60,000 words, assuming an average scene-size of, say, 1500 words, you will need at least 40 scenes in your novel. If you subscribe to the three-act structure (and you should), you can break your novel into three parts: parts 1 and 3 will contain ten scenes each; part two, the middle, will consist of twenty scenes.

It may pay you to now open a new document for your plot-related notes. Since you’ve already figured out what is driving your main characters, you likely have a central conflict in place already. You may do some freewriting in your plot notebook on the same topic in search of more information, clues, and elements of conflict. As in your character notebook, even here the rules are pretty flimsy. Don’t try to interfere too much with the mind; the idea is to just let go and see where you end up.

Along with your plot notebook, create an Excel sheet and list all your forty scenes. (At this stage, all you will have are the numbers 1-40. This is fine.) In the course of writing in your plot notebook, the story will eventually begin to take some shape in your mind. When it happens, make sure you put it down, scene-wise, into your new scene-summary document. Aim for no more than one or two sentences per scene. Your first few entries in your Excel sheet may look like something like this:

Scene 1: Jack gets a phone call about his mother’s accident. John leaves for the hospital.

Scene 2: At the hospital, Jill poisons her mother. Mother and daughter have a small exchange of words. The mother dies.

Scene 3: Jill begins to eliminate the evidence, checking her watch every now and then so as to finish before Jack arrives.

Scene 4: Jack arrives to see Jill crying by the body of their mother. Jill tells Jack that he is too late. They confront each other.

The speed with which these scenes will ‘come’ will vary from person to person, but if you stick at it, your scene summaries for Act 1 should be complete in a couple of days. If you find that your notes give you more information than one sentence for each scene, then go ahead and put it into your summary document. But once you’ve done the one-line summaries for the first ten scenes, then go back and expand them to include the following information for each scene.

  1. One sentence on how the scene begins. (“This scene begins with…”)
  2. One sentence on who is involved in the scene.
  3. One sentence on where the scene occurs.
  4. One sentence on what happens in the scene.
  5. One sentence on how the scene ends. (“This scene ends with…”)

If you can get the five-sentence summaries done for each of your Act 1 scenes, then you will have done well for this week. Also, please keep in mind that your only ‘deliverable’ is to yourself, and it is to spend 90 minutes everyday on your novel. As long as you’re achieving that day in and day out, you’re doing well. Don’t let fears and thoughts of stagnation bog you down. No matter how much it seems like you’re making no progress, if you’re spending ninety minutes at your writing table everyday, then you are moving ahead.

We will meet back here next week, same time, same place.

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